It’s been Isaiah Thomas or nothing this season for the Celtics. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)
The imagery was too rich. Moments after Friday’s 104-88 wipeout at the hands of the Warriors, fire alarms were going off all around TD Garden. Fire trucks had trouble getting down the side streets leading up to the Garden to turn off the annoying sounds that delayed Brad Stevens’ postgame explanation of the mess.
Turns out, a grill on the fourth floor malfunctioned and overheated, setting off the 20-minute disruption.
If only fixing the Celtics were that easy. But we’ll try.
1. Shorten the bench. From early on in camp, the thought was that having a deep bench could strengthen rotations for Brad Stevens. It hasn’t worked that way. The bench is not producing enough and is getting constantly outdone by the opposing group of reserves. On Friday, three players on the bench had at least 23 minutes. Part of that was because of garbage time in the fourth and part of it was traveling to Detroit after the game for a back-to-back Saturday. A good three or four man rotation off the bench is the sweet spot for most NBA teams and the return of Jae Crowder and Al Horford should help that.
2. Pray for health. The Celtics have been admittedly hard hit by injuries early in the season. Crowder (left ankle) and Horford (concussion) have missed most of the season while Marcus Smart dinged his left ankle Friday night. Crowder and Horford should return on the trip while the prognosis for Smart does not seem dire. When you’re missing two-thirds of your starting front court, there is going to be a problem. The Celtics have been using this as a bit of crutch but it’s been a legitimate issue that has stunted their ability to improve early on.
3. Bench Kelly Olynyk. He spaces the floor but at some point, when you’re 0-for-5 as a finesse big man and have grab three rebounds in 17 minutes, the message needs to be sent. The Celtics can’t afford his finesse game right now. They need bigs who will get dirty. Olynyk is heading back to the bench and he should probably stay there until the 7-footer shows the ability and determination to help on the inside. Stevens certainly sounds like he’s going to try and support Olynyk on board for as long as he needs him. “Kelly, I thought, has always done a lot of good things for us. There’s some tough match-ups out there [Friday] and I think that he’s had better games; he’d be the first to tell you. But he’s been a good player for us.”
4. Press more and create transition. This is a team with Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Smart. When they’re on the court, they should limit their half-court exposure and use their quickness to their advantage. With Crowder and Horford out, Stevens tried going with Jaylen Brown and Tyler Zeller to match up big for big. That didn’t work. They went to Smart to guard much bigger bigs. Not a bad idea considering he’s the healthiest low-post defender. In half-court, trapping more couldn’t hurt. They desperately need to create turnovers and transition offense for easy baskets, a category they dominated last spring when they made a run to 48 wins.
5. Get to the basket. The Celtics are taking 30 threes a game, making 10 of them. The instant gratification from that is great. Here’s the problem: They’re not drawing fouls on the opposition and, outside of Isaiah Thomas (9/9 Friday) they’re not getting to the free throw line. Thomas is fifth in the league getting to the line, averaging 10 free throws a game, making 9. The inside game of the Celtics is lacking and that takes some dirty work. Do the dirty work, get to the line and rebound. All of that happens when there’s more of an inside commitment.
Isaiah Thomas finally had enough after Friday’s 104-88 embarrassment on national TV to would-be Celtic Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors.
The Celtics were humiliated 31-9 in the third quarter, a period that featured an 18-0 run by the Warriors. The Celtics were an abysmal 2-of-17 from the field and 1-of-9 from 3-point range.
Al Horford or no Al Horford, Jae Crowder or no Jae Crowder, those numbers are appalling.
“We know we have two of our key players out and that’s no excuse but we were in the game for one half,” Thomas said. “Everybody seen that third quarter open it up. So if you take away that third quarter and play as close to 48 minutes as possible, we’d still be in the game. You can’t let a team like that go on a run like that and expect to come back.
And what’s more concerning is the lack of consistency the Celtics have shown over a 6-6 start to the season. Opposing teams aren’t just snubbing the Celtics like Durant, they’re rubbing their noses in it like Durant’s front court colleague Zaza Pachulia, who did a dance after a 17-footer that capped the 18-0 spurt. That shot made it 79-51.
“Yeah. At that point, the game is turned around,” Thomas said. “I guess we we gave up. I mean, coaching staff as well. We started subbing, it was bad. Especially, I only played 27 minutes. We gave up.”
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It’s one thing to be getting beat. It’s another to be giving up. The Celtics spent much of last week talking about how the team must learn to take a punch and punch back. They can’t be taking abuse and not responding. They can’t be hanging their heads when things aren’t going well. They’re doing all of that right now.
And now their star player is calling out the coaching staff for quitting on the game. Nearly at the same time last year, Jae Crowder had a similar critique about rotation issues last year and the team responded by winning five of their next seven games. It was after an ugly 110-91 loss in Orlando that dropped the team to 9-8. That was criticism of strategy. What Thomas is suggesting is criticism of faith.
The Celtics of last season had a lot more heart and determination than this one is showing right now. And everyone on the team knows it. They took Golden State to overtime and lost in Boston in December and they beat the Warriors in Oakland to end their record home-court winning streak. Friday night, they looked no where close to being that same team.
“We couldn’t score and they did,” Thomas said. “That’s what we did well last year with them. Even though they went on runs, we held our own and we were able to score right back on them. That’s what happens against a really good team like that: If you stop scoring, they’re definitely going to continue to score, because they have so many options.”
Brad Stevens had to coach with the thought that the Celtics will be in Detroit Saturday night playing a game. The players took any decision-making out of his hands when they fell down by 29. Yes, they cut it to 11 points with 90 seconds left but by then it was too late.
“I think that it’s a long year, everybody knows it’s a long year; we’ve got 70 games left,” Stevens said. “We haven’t played a game yet without two of our top eight rotation guys missing. So everybody’s got a pretty good mindset about that. They realize that there are areas that we need to continue to improve, but at the same time we’ve got a really tough stretch coming up and I think we’re going to approach it positively.”
All of that is true. But there could be a much more serious problem under the surface. When one of your core leaders says the team collectively gave up, there is the sense that there is no fight in the team. How many times have you heard teams collectively talk about fighting to the end or battling even when the team was blown to smithereens on the field of play? Bill Belichick famously said after the 41-14 blowout loss to Kansas City in 2014 that all he was looking for in his team in the second half of that game was fight. How did the team fight? That’s exactly what’s missing from this Celtics team right now.
“We panicked too fast. Any game is winnable,” Thomas said. “As fast as you can get up, as fast as you can make a comeback. We have a game tomorrow, we have to turn the page. But we gotta be more consistent as players and as coaches.”
Thomas said he “didn’t really notice” the crowd booing Kevin Durant. That’s probably because the Celtics have far more pressing issues than worrying about hurt feelings because a free agent didn’t sign with them four months ago.
“Just turn the page,” Thomas said. “The best players have the shortest memories, whether good or bad. Once you go to sleep, wake up tomorrow, you forget about this loss. But I believe we gave up. For whatever reason, they hit us and we didn’t hit back.”
It’s been Thomas or nothing this year on offense for the Celtics. That clearly is not a viable plan going forward. Friday night, he scored 18 points on 4-of-12 shooting, his first sub-20 point game of the season. This came just 48 hours after Thomas scored 20 points in the final six minutes of a 90-83 win over the woeful Mavericks. Thomas had eight points through three quarters. Friday is what happens when you rely on a player on an off night and nobody steps up.
“Well, I mean he’s done it – he’s done it so many times. But I was afraid that we were really going to have to gut this one out and figure out a way,” Stevens said after Wednesday’s game. “Even with our start, and then the start of the second quarter kind of put us in a little bit of a – we definitely stagnated quite a bit. But I thought we looked a little heavy-legged, and I thought that our guys fought through it. And credit those guys for figuring out a way to defend the whole way through and ultimately making enough shots to win. Certainly Isaiah’s fourth quarter was tremendous.”
Before Friday, the Celtics had shown signs of playing better defense, holding Dallas to 83 points in a 90-83 win Wednesday night.
“We talk together…we had a team meeting…those last couple games we’ve been blown out by 30 and 20…that wasn’t the way the Celtics play, it’s not the way this team plays and we had to come back and look ourselves in the mirrors and explain to ourselves,” Smart said .”Everybody came out and said what they thought was going on and we had to be truthful to ourselves.”
When the Celtics were blown off the court in Washington, Smart and the players got together for a players-only meeting to hammer things out.
“One practice after the Wizards game, and it was no coaches just us, and like I said we had to look ourselves in the mirror and come to the conclusion that it is us and we’re the ones playing and that we have to get it together,” Smart said.
Might be time for that again.
Closing out Durant:
Kevin Durant finally made his appearance Friday night in Boston and drew the ire of Celtics fans every time he touched the ball. He responded with 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting and a remarkable plus-32 (which was as high as plus-41 in the third quarter).
What do you think of Durant’s coach think of the superstar getting the reaction he did?
“It’s just the beer talking,” Steve Kerr quipped.
Added Klay Thompson, the man rumored to be in trade discussions involving the Celtics, “That is normal at this point. Boston fans are very passionate, doesn’t matter what sport, they love their Celtics. They might’ve felt like he burned them but that’s okay. Like I said, they are passionate…I’m sure KD enjoys it. He is a competitor and we enjoy our one trip here a year.”
And the man himself?
“I didn’t care,” Durant said. “I’m always motivated to play, so no, I was cool.”